By the time we hit our 40s, most of us have long made peace with whatever trauma we endured in high school (and everyone, from the prom king to the loneliest kid in class, suffers in their own way). Then there are people like Dan Landsman (Jack Black), who married his college sweetheart (Kathryn Hahn) and has a bright teenage son (Russell Posner) but is still trying to make up for having been one of the uncool as an adolescent.
As president of his former high school’s alumni committee — a meaningless post he values much too heavily — Dan is intent on making their upcoming class reunion a smash. He cooks up a bogus business trip to L.A., fooling his Luddite boss (an endearing Jeffrey Tambor), who doesn’t even know how to use a computer, into thinking they will be pitching a potential client. Instead, all Dan wants to do is to meet up with Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), the former star quarterback and most popular guy in school who is now a struggling actor in Hollywood. Dan wants to make Oliver the main attraction of his class reunion back home: If he can lasso the aura of the once-revered jock and fool people into thinking they are good friends all these years later, Dan will finally be validated in the eyes of his former peers as someone worthy of admiration.
Or so he believes, anyway. Comedies about grown-ups getting a second try at their high school years run the gamut from broad and silly (17 Again, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion) to dreamy and wistful (Peggy Sue Got Married). In The D Train, co-writers/directors Andrew Mogel and (Miami native) Jarrad Paul shoot for something much riskier. Anchored by another strong performance from Black, who after playing the murderous mortician Bernie and now this seems intent on deconstructing his screen persona, the movie flirts with a great darkness about disillusionment and self-loathing even as it races around spinning comedic plates.
Marsden plays Oliver as a man in denial: We recognize him as the sort of sad soul who knows his life peaked in senior year, yet he’s trying to convince everyone — including himself — that was not the case. In a terrific scene, Oliver approaches Dermot Mulroney (playing himself) at a bar and tries to chat him up as if they were peers, aware that the famous actor is just humoring him (Marsden’s depiction of quiet humiliation is poignant). His unexpected bromance with Dan, which sends them out on a long night of barhopping, snorting cocaine and raising hell, has an undercurrent of pathos, too. We know Oliver is getting off on being treated like the golden boy again, and we know, too, that Dan has finally achieved something he’s always dreamed of: being accepted by one of the cool kids. Each man is using the other without realizing it. They’re emotional vampires.
Then The D Train throws you an enormous curveball that breaks the film out of its formulaic comedy template and turns it into something trickier and harder to pin down: The clownish humor is imbued with a great, genuine pain – the plight of people who are still trying to live down their reputation as teenagers, or trying to live up to it. For its first 45 minutes, The D Train hurtles into unexpected, intriguing territory about how our adolescence can sometimes shape who we become as adults – and not always for the best.
Unfortunately, the twist proves too much for the filmmakers to handle. The second half of The D Train collapses into a series of plot curlicues and narrative dead-ends. The picture loses its nerve and opts for a pat, convenient resolution that, like the two protagonists, doesn’t really confront the issues the story had raised. As directors, Mogel and Paul are sabotaged by their own script: They don’t know what to do with the knotty story threads they’ve created, and the characters, especially Black’s increasingly harried Dan, become blurrier and harder to understand as the film progresses. The D Train ends with a long voiceover by Black that spoonfeeds the viewer, recapping everything Dan has learned over the course of the movie. But the film would have been better off by ending with the line Dan’s son, who has grown impatient with his father’s embarrassing behavior, tells him one morning: “I’m gonna get a lot of s–t today, and I just have to deal with it. So do you.” Because that’s what grown-ups do must eventually do, no matter the emotional baggage they’ve been carting around since graduation.
Cast: Jack Black, James Marsden, Jeffrey Tambor, Kathryn Hahn, Russell Posner.
Writers-directors: Andrew Mogel, Jarrad Paul.
An IFC Films release. Running time: 97 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, brief nudity, drug use, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.